|GROWING UP ON ACADEMY HILL
Remembering My French-Canadian-American Papa
By Annette Paradis King
An excerpt, Chapter 13, for
info on purchasing the book, see below.
BOOK BAGS, MITTENS, AND POST OFFICE VISITS
Do all the good you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
John Wesley, Rules of Conduct
Whether in the barn or out by the garden, we loved playing around father's working areas. He would make us laugh with his jokes about everything, but mostly at himself. There were lessons too, as simple as planting gardens and watching them grow. As we became older, he would encourage us to plant our own small gardens. Around harvest time we looked forward to his tokens for jobs well done. Unaware of this at the time, I now realize that a good measure of unfaltering common sense resulted from those special times together.Once Papa decided Marguerite and I were going to learn to knit. We were only in third grade when given a skein of yarn and four needles each, and informed,"I'm not buying mittens for girls who keep losing them. You'll have to knit your own."
Madame Vaillencourt, our French-Canadian neighbor,
was willing to teach us. She lived in a small unfinished, two-level house
beyond our property on Lincoln Street. Most people knew the Vaillencourts,
as the Smarts. Name changing was common where Mr. Vaillencourt was employed
as a mill worker. He once told my father that he'd accepted this new name
as had many others not to lose his job. Papa said we should call them Madame
and Monsieur Vaillencourt as he held both in good regards. He often gave
a helping hand if Monsieur Vaillencourt were unable to do something by
himself. It was late October when I carried my yarn and needles down a
well-worn path on the east side of our red barn, walked beyond elder bushes
being swayed by strong winds and tenfifteen feet more reached Vaillencourt's
yard. Marguerite, carrying her new skein of yarn and needles walked close
behind. We found Madame waiting by the door as if we had an appointment.
She greeted us like we were a couple of grownups. Madame was a kind woman
who showed love for children. The neighborhood respected Madame and Monsieur.
"Bonjour, Bonjour!" She clapped her hands and gestured us inside. We removed our coats and sat, ready for our first lesson. As the afternoon light dimmed, she lit an oil lamp and placed it closer to our chairs. She spoke only in French and said very little beyond the instructions given. We mirrored Madame's silent persona, for it was proper to wait until spoken to. When she stood to fill the kettle with water taken from the blue enamel pail next to the sink, it was time for us to leave. We reluctantly pulled on our outer clothes, gathered our knitting and chanted, "Merci, Merci." At the door we wished Madame bonsoir and returned home by the path next to the barn which was mostly hidden in long dark shadows by four-thirty in the afternoon.For a short while during the evening we continued to practice our knitting and after school returned to Madame's house until we had each finished one pair of mittens. Later, our good neighbor taught us to knit stockings, which included turning heels using four needles. Papa's demand so strongly stated, "Learn to knit or have 'cold hands!' resulted in our both becoming skilled knitters.
There were other times when Papa brought to our attention something he enjoyed doing, explaining anything new as if it were the greatest adventure. Once, on a particularly clear May evening he had eagerly marched us upstairs for our first introduction to stars. He stood pointing past the window, holding above his head, Mama's kitchen dipper. The stars filled the sky. Colors of yellow, orange, and white were everywhere, they never twinkled more brightly. Papa was pointing to the super constellations. Yes, those seven stars did look like the dipper being held in his up-stretched hand! And there was the Little Dipper, too, and further on was a large band of faint white lights he called the Milky Way, the Bear and Twins. It was an impressive evening. From that moment on looking up to the heavens, some stars have remained 'our stars' and my link back in time to my childhood.
If Papa's education during his youth had included the arts, I know intuitively he might have been drawn to acting. I'm reminded of those years Marguerite and I were students at the Herbert Gray Grammar School. We often went to the post office after school or when we were doing errands for Mama and happened to be going past.
Here at the post office a lessen in drama came alive. The entertainment began as soon as Papa opened the heavy cellar doors upon hearing our anticipated knocks. Bending one knee, he flung his left arm high in the air while almost sweeping the floor with his right. His wide slow-bow set the tone for the visit as he mixed formality with pretense. We felt very important, as though being ushered into a grand palace; though in reality, it was only the post office cellar. We were seated together in Papa's armchair near the furnace then he returned to work. It was with admiration we'd watch coal being shoveled from the iron-wheel barrow through the big open door and over the hot flat floor of the furnace. In our eyes, everything father did in the post office was important.
He asked us how things were going at home or school as he worked. There by the furnace we felt comfortable. The cellar was the coziest place on cold wintry days. Our checks became red by the time Papa had swept the floor of coal dust, emptied the dustpan in the fire and closed the furnace doors. Once the many vents were adjusted, his full attention was ours, a story if there were enough time was considered a treat. His subjects covered the seasons or some event of the day. Before it was time to go he passed around a cup of cold water taken from another room and offering to us as if it were a root beer, or hot chocolate.
"Do you want a drink?"
"Yes, please." We spoke in English to please our father.
"Did you have enough?"
"Yes. Thank you Papa!"
Then, bowing again while walking ahead of us as far as the door we delighted in hearing:
"Thank you for coming! "
"Good day, Ladies!"
"Do come again."
All my sisters can recall an occasion or two when Papa's intervention turned into a lasting memory. But our sister Lydia's metaphor captures well the warmth we all experienced as children at some point. I'll paraphrase as she told the story to me years ago.It was her first day as a first-grade student in the St. Joseph Grammar School and Lydia was becoming more upset with each passing hour. By the time school was dismissed, her mind was set she would go to the post office and talk things over with Papa. She knew the rules were to return directly home from school; yet, she walked precisely in the opposite direction the business district anyway. Arriving to her destination, she ran quickly down the cement steps and stood in front of the familiar doors, rattling them frantically. Father, hearing the racket, hurried to assist.Lydia, unable to hold back tears any longer, burst into loud cries. When Papa was able to quiet her enough he heard,
"I'm the only girl in my class who doesn't have a book bag."
He took her hand and headed toward the same door Lydia had a moment ago entered, saying, "Well!" As she heard the key turning in the lock, Lydia held on even more tightly, not able to imagine what Papa had in mind. They walked across the soft green lawn Papa mowed all summer. At the lawn's edge, they faced the back entrance of the Old Town Five & Dime Store. Papa opened the screened-door with his right hand holding his left arm high up over her head. Lydia, accepting his invitation to enter, stepped into a large aisle. All she saw hanging from hooks, which covered the store's back wall, were book bags of many colors.
"Book bags!" she whispered.
All were very similar to the ones the girls from
her class had carried to school that morning. Helping her choose one, Papa
thought aloud, "What do you think Mama will say?" By late afternoon when
my little sister walked into the house with a new book bag, Mama must have
been very relieved though somewhat concerned. Lydia couldn't remember
what Mama said on the afternoon she told me her story. Mama's reactions,
after all those years were lost to time. But the glow she felt for Papa
hadn't faded from her eyes.
|About the Author:
Annette P. King grew up on Academy Hill during the Great Depression and graduated the Old Town High School in 1942. At that time, the high school was located on Jefferson Street in Old Town. Annette's lived on Wilson Street a few streets below the high school. In 1949 she graduated the Robert Breck Brigham Hospital, in Boston, Massachusetts. She married Gerald C. King from Bradley, Maine. He graduated from John Bapts High School and the University of Maine. They raised four sons in Wallingford, Connecticut. Gerald took early retirement. Today Annette and Gerald live on Frenchman Bay, in Gouldsboro, Maine.
She decided to write a story in honor of her father who had encouraged all six of his children to finish high school, a not so common goal for those hard times during and following the Great Depression.
Calculating her Papa's ideology was not so difficult. He was born with an inexhaustible desire to feel the earth passing through his fingers, to smell newly plowed fields warmed by sunlight on early spring mornings, to honor all life, whether in the form of beast, fowl, or human÷.
÷ Every spring Papa, pointed joyfully to new beginnings and with the same enthusiasm showed us the basics of all beauty. From one corner of our bit of land to the other we observed life through his eyes.
Announcing a new book: